2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight: The Tyranny of Edward Tufte

Written by Megan Simpson | February 25, 2014

Gabi Schaffzin will talk about the tyranny of Edward Tufte at SXSW 2014

Gabi Schaffzin has been on multiple sides of this session’s argument. He holds an undergraduate business degree and spent seven years in the marketing and advertising world. When he went back to school to receive his MFA in communication design, he began considering other perspectives. His time at art school allowed him to explore the formal considerations of data visualization and information design, but also exposed him to the design and cultural theorists who have strongly influenced re-thinking of the larger picture surrounding the issues. His 2014 SXSW Interactive session, “The Tyranny of Edward Tufte,” is featured in this installment of the Session Spotlight.

SXSW: Can you give us a description about your solo session on Edward Tufte?
Schaffzin: When Edward Tufte tweets mockingly of the leaked NSA slides, he does so as the self-anointed king of presenting evidence. Empiricism’s head cheerleader, he has built an empire on telling everyone what Truth looks like. He's also perpetuated a culture where those with the data hold the power. As we shift our appreciation for discourse to those with the willingness and know-how to compress communication into data-visualization, to what dangers do we open ourselves up?

SXSW: Have you spoken about this topic before?
Schaffzin: While this will be the first time I give this specific presentation, I have spoken about the underlying points at a number of conferences over the past year (including SXSW 2013). Specifically, I have given presentations on information design for social movements, as well as the use of speculative design in education. The bulk of my background as an artist and scholar stems from the pursuit of my MFA. The reactions garnered from my presentation varies—there are those who commend me for challenging a powerful force in the data visualization movement, there are those who are inspired by the speculative nature of my art work, and those who are frustrated by my framing of the scientific as reductive and seductive in the pejorative.

SXSW: What kinds of people will want to attend this session?
Schaffzin: I hope to attract a range of people: from artists to data scientists, from design educators to cultural theorists. I touch upon all of those fields in the presentation and I believe my work will greatly benefit from the possibly varied feedback.

SXSW: Why should SXSW registrants attend this session?
Schaffzin: From the outside, SXSW seems like the place where you go to find out about the latest buzz or trends in the technology world. But for those of us who have attended before, we know that the richest SXSW experience comes from those sessions, which challenge the trajectory upon which the dominant trends are taking us. In this case, I seek to instill a strong sense of criticality in my session’s attendees—one which inspires them to question whether or not the data-driven nature of today's world is, in fact, leading to an unreasonable quantification of everything we do—by anyone who can get their hands on that data.

SXSW: If a registrant is unfamiliar with this topic, will he or she be able to follow the discussion?
Schaffzin: Generally, they will be able to follow the discussion without much knowledge of Tufte, infographics, the NSA PRISM story, or data visualization. My presentations are generous in back-story and my work uses a familiar (albeit simultaneously incongruous) language of the commercial experience—that is, the ad campaign—to speak to my viewer in a familiar language. As such, if I am successful, I can reach a wide range of individuals and teach them something important.

SXSW: What do you hope the takeaway from your session will be?
Schaffzin: My hope is that she is opened up to the possibility that our data-centric culture is worthy of close scrutiny and is willing to consider that making art is an important method in building that critique.

SXSW: Have you been to SXSW Interactive before? If so, when? What was your experience like?
Schaffzin: My first time attending was in 2011, so this will be my fourth year in attendance. It has always been an extremely important opportunity to hear the various perspectives and points of view regarding the issues that concern me most. The networking and parties are certainly a plus, but not where I invest my energy.

SXSW: In your opinion, why is speaking at SXSW Interactive a big deal?
Schaffzin: It's a very large stage. Even if you have very few people attending your talk (as was the case last year), the availability of your talk after the event is an important way to spread your ideas. Admittedly, the cachet of having the event on your résumé is important.

SXSW: How can attendees of SXSW connect with you?
Schaffzin: I tweet @GabiSchaffzin. I mostly retweet academics with whom I agree, though I'm rarely brave enough to formulate my own statement. I've resolved to be better at that in 2014. Otherwise, I'm lamenting the latest Philadelphia sports meltdown. I haven't updated my blog in a very long time, but it is at http://www.barelyconcealednarcissism.com. It mainly documented whatever was my primary focus at the time (work, school, etc). I also have a Tumblr.

Watch this website for more installments of the 2014 SXSW Interactive Session Spotlight. Click here for the complete list of programming for March in Austin. For tips on interesting sessions to attend, visit the new Recommendation page. Register now to attend “The Tyranny of Edward Tufte” and other incredible programming at SXSW Interactive 2014.